IN THE chaos-theory world of major league baseball, games are decided, seasons defined and championships determined by decisions both innocuous and obvious, noted and unnoted. So it was that one of the most important moments in the St. Louis Cardinals' 2006 world championship season actually took place three years earlier in a New Hampshire house belonging to a heretofore unremarkable righthanded pitcher named Chris Carpenter who had yet to make a single appearance in a Cardinals uniform.
At issue was whether Carpenter, then 28 years old and faced with a second shoulder surgery in less than a year, could endure the mental and physical strain of another rehabilitation. He and his wife, Alyson, debated the merits of surgery versus those of retirement well into the night, until finally, at 3 a.m., a verdict was reached. Says Carpenter, "She convinced me to give it another shot."
Had he walked away then, history would recall Carpenter, if he registered in baseball's cluttered memory bank at all, as a mediocre pitcher (his lifetime record stood at 49-50), and nothing more. To the eternal relief of the Cardinals and their fans, Carpenter put off joining the workforce. Indeed, in the three seasons since his return, he has developed into the best pitcher in the National League, as his league-high totals for winning percentage (.739, 51-18), shutouts (seven) and complete games (13) will attest. In 2006 Carpenter had a 15-8 record and a 3.08 ERA, numbers that fell short of his '05 Cy Young-winning season (21-5, 2.83) but that might be good enough to win Carpenter a second straight Cy, something that hasn't been done in the NL since Greg Maddux won four straight from 1992 through '95 and Randy Johnson did the same from '99 through '02.
That Carpenter has taken his place alongside two sure Hall of Famers is further evidence of the dramatic revival his life has undergone since that night in 2003. In six seasons with the Toronto Blue Jays, from 1997 through '02, Carpenter had shown glimpses of the pitcher he would become but had never won more than 12 games in a season or had an ERA below 4.00. In '02 Carpenter was the Jays' Opening Day starter, but by August a persistent pain that had been troubling him all year finally landed him on the disabled list. It turned out to be a torn labrum that would require surgery.
Carpenter had the surgery in September, but a little more than a month later, after he refused an assignment to the minor leagues, he became a free agent and signed with the Cardinals. "We got reports from our doctors and felt confident he would recover," said St. Louis general manager Walt Jocketty, who had tried to trade for Carpenter during the 2002 season before he went on the disabled list. Added manager Tony La Russa, "We had some people who knew him and gave a strong recommendation about what's in here [ La Russa pointed to his head] and here [his heart]."
Carpenter reported to the minor leagues for the Cardinals in 2003 but left the team in pain after a disappointing start for Double A Tennessee in which he allowed five runs without making it out of the fourth inning. Alyson and their newborn son, Sam, had come to Tennessee to see him, and when they went back to New Hampshire, Carpenter chose to join them. He spent 10 days back home and fell easily into a life of domesticity. "I was able to be around my son every day," says Carpenter. "I was changing diapers, getting up in the middle of the night to feed him. [I thought] I can come home and work and have an everyday job and be around them every day."
Far less enjoyable was the prospect of another surgery and more grueling hours of rehabilitation. "I basically accepted that maybe it wasn't for me," he says. "Maybe my body wasn't able to withstand the things you need to do to be consistently strong and healthy to pitch in the major leagues."
Alyson wasn't convinced that her husband could walk away from the game. "I told him if he was sure he could have made that decision 100 percent with no regrets I would totally back that," she says now. "He wasn't, and that's when he said, 'O.K., maybe I need to talk to [the Cardinals] again.'"
On July 29 Carpenter underwent his second surgery in 11 months. A tack that had been inserted as a precautionary measure in the first surgery had caused scar tissue to form in his shoulder. As soon as that tissue was removed, the pain went with it. Carpenter awoke a changed man. A few hours later he tested his arm for range of motion and was overjoyed.
By October he was ready to step back on a mound, but New Hampshire in autumn offered few options for a big leaguer on the mend. So Carpenter phoned the head coach at Saint Anselm College, a Division II school in nearby Manchester, and began showing up for workouts two and three times a week to pitch off a wooden mound in the school's gym. J.P. Pyne, Saint Anselm's pitching coach at the time, remembers that although Carpenter hadn't pitched in a major league game in over a year, he brought "major league focus" to his sessions.